In Pursuit of Knowledge

The Pursuit of Knowledge

We live in an era pervaded by a tireless quest for information, it rules us as certainly as the Gods of Olympus once presided over Ancient Greece and sometimes with the same degree of wanton caprice. But what does it mean, this obsessive drive to highjack information superhighways, to harness the juggernauts that frequent the icy world of cyber-space, to drive through the lace-like conduits of virtual reality. I do not understand it and though I am much taken with the work of J.G.Ballard, William Gibson and their compatriots in guerilla literature, I must admit that I am more fascinated with the language they are creating than the stories they tell. The frontiers they are exploring are ultimately more linguistic than conceptual and the bottom line story bears an uncanny resemblance to the mythos of the lone Cowboys of North American literature and that time-honoured tradition of good versus evil. The hero triumphs, evil is vanquished and love waits in the wings. When sunset comes he (or sometimes she) vanishes over another horizon. Mind you the weaponry is much more sophisticated and the humble horse has become redundant. Its very strange. But to return to that Golden Cow, Information, the new God of our perverse culture. We must all be informed these days and to be properly informed we must have access to the latest technology that will present this information to us on a platter. Instant gratification, the politics of the market place and the insidious disease of consumerism predicate a global culture that can inform or be informed faster, quicker, bigger, better, sooner, cheaper.

Being of a peculiar cast of mind I continue to believe that information is something that you read off the side of cake mixes or milk cartons, it tells you what ingredients reside within the package and I suspect the information is tailored to suit my needs: I like to think that I am not unduly contaminating the health of my children with toxic additives which may impair their ability to function. But central to this obsession with information is an entrenched and dangerous delusion that information may be construed as knowledge. How the philosophers of Ancient Greece would have abhorred this facile notion for they valued, above all, the pursuit of knowledge and were prepared to dedicate a lifetime to rigorous intellectual endeavour in order to acquire understanding, assimilation, a foundation from which to postulate ideas. For centuries western philosophers have argued over various theories of knowledge without necessarily coming to any ultimate conclusions. Now, for myself, I am quite prepared to admit that I don’t know what it is but its obviously very valuable stuff and I wouldn’t mind having a bit of it before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I do know that knowledge may be arrived at by travelling a number of different paths and that it always requires a level of hard work. Although it is historically true that people may be struck by a kind of epiphany in pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge like Darwin who maintained that his theory of evolution came to him as he was dozing in a carriage, or Einstein’s contention that equations came to him in dreams. Normally however knowledge is rarely delivered to one like a giant sized pizza and the acquisition of it is not dependent on financial resources. Even in these dark and disturbing times there is still a free public library service although I suspect its existence becomes more precarious each day. How can one economically justify such rash and wanton institutions?

We live in a culture that is profoundly opposed to the frivolity of ideas, to thought for the sheer joy of investigation, to forms of knowledge that are completely detached from applicability or practical outcomes. Does the soul’s essentially poetic drive die a death of little things each day because it cannot claim a use-value in the market place? I think not, something in human nature will not quite bow to the new tyranny of Information. For example I know how the King Parrot is beautiful not just because my eyes transmit signals to the brain which then codifies and quantifies information and finally surmises that beauty has arrived in the birch tree on a late sunlit afternoon. I know it is beautiful with the eyes of my heart, it speaks to me of a regal beauty that will never be tamed, the lustre of its feathers, the pungency of colour, the endless fascination of its golden, unblinking eye. When it takes flight there is a surge in my blood, a yearning to go with it. I do not need one scientific fact about the nature of the bird to inform my knowledge of its beauty, it is, it needs no gilding. Watching the King Parrot I could begin to create metaphors of kings and monarchs, jewels and crowns, the true nature of royalty, a profusion of ideas, one leaping after the other and all this is part of my knowledge of its beauty, its essence. It is not just a question of aesthetics, although here we could get into rather deep philosophical water, nor is it a question of being educated into notions of beauty rather it is more like Keats’ famous summation Truth is beauty and beauty is truth. The bird as metaphor, the bird as flying word. Ah me, it gets difficult.

If I were to reduce the King Parrot to a set of descriptors: habitat, food, geographical distribution, lifespan, reproduction, what exactly would I know? A series of facts, a set of scientific observations that do not account for my reaction to the bird nor my intrinsic understanding of its beauty. Nor can it account for this spontaneous combustion of creativity by association. Nothing can. But it is enough, this discursive perambulation, I must return to what I originally wanted to analyse.

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